Why Ottawa should resist the urge to be helpful

Why Ottawa should resist the urge to be helpful

‘Real change’ doesn’t happen overnight—or without the necessary funds

Pages and staff prepare the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 2, 2015. Members of Parliament will vote Thursday for a new Speaker of the House of Commons. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Pages and staff prepare the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, December 2, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Some things are taking longer than people hoped. Syrian refugees, for instance. I wrote this column on Jan. 5, and the federal government’s handy website told me 6,300 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada. The number will grow. It did not reach 25,000 by the last day of 2015 (Justin Trudeau’s campaign promise) or even 10,000 (his first goal after his government was sworn in) unless some of those Syrians bring time machines.

Staffing up the offices of government is taking time too. The Liberals launched a website for job applicants, and put word out a few days later that they had received 20,000 applications. Apparently none of those people applied for a job processing job applications from random Internet people. There is a bottleneck. There is still tumbleweed blowing through most ministers’ offices. It won’t last. Growing pains, is all.

At the end of the month, MPs will return to the House of Commons. Sort of: The Parliamentary calendar for 2016, which the Liberals inherited from the Conservatives, is one of the lightest in a decade. MPs will return at the end of January for two weeks, then take a week off. Then back for two weeks, then a week off. Back for another week, then a week off. Another week on, then two weeks off. Through the end of March, the House will sit for one-third fewer days than in a typical year. It will be May before MPs stay in town for three consecutive weeks. The new government needed the assent of all parties to change the 2016 calendar. It couldn’t get them to agree. The calendar will bottleneck Trudeau’s ambition almost until summer.

Money will be a constraint long after. Briefing notes prepared for Trudeau, the Canadian Press reported, warn him he will be working in an environment characterized by “complex policy, rapid technological change, limited finances and increasing demands for citizen involvement.” Complexity, speed and openness will tend to make government more expensive. Limited finances—limited in large part by Conservative GST cuts Trudeau is loath to reverse—will make it hard to pay for.

This will be sad news for the caravans of petitioners now making their way toward Ottawa to seek a cut of Trudeau’s sunny ways. The cupboards are bare. Or rather, their contents are spoken for: There will be billions for infrastructure, billions more for new child benefits, smaller amounts to combat climate change and make good things happen in First Nations communities. Bills that big leave little for other projects.

This is important context for two of the government’s new ministers, Navdeep Bains and Kirsty Duncan. Duncan is the minister of science. Bains is the minister of innovation, science and economic development. In the old days we would have called him the minister of industry.

A stink bomb landed on both ministers’ desks at the end of November. It was the biennial report of the government’s own Science, Technology and Innovation Council, composed of experts from universities, business and the civil service. It tells such a distressing story about the performance of science and the innovation performance of business that the Conservatives postponed the report’s release until after the election.

“Canada has fallen behind its global competition on key performance indicators,” the report says, “reflected most tellingly in business investment in research and development.” By most measures, Canada has been falling behind comparable countries in private sector R&D for a decade. While it still produces world-leading scientists in many fields, its talent base has shown “mild erosion” as highly mobile researchers begin to look outside Canada’s borders for their future, the report said.

Turning those worrisome trends around without spending a lot of money will be a nice challenge. This government could help by simply getting out of researchers’ way. The Harper government targeted research funding ever more narrowly, funding “research into Alzheimer’s disease” as though a government could know, in advance, which breakthroughs in molecular biology would help combat Alzheimer’s and which won’t. Un-targeting that targeted funding would free more scientists to do more science instead of paperwork.

The Liberals could also resist the urge to be helpful. This week Bains visited a monument to governments’ urge to help: the MARS Discovery District building in Toronto. It was an attempt by Ontario’s governments, Conservative and Liberal in quick succession, to solve a problem: not enough Canadian businesses implement new ideas and technologies. So the government and the University of Toronto would make a building in downtown Toronto. Businesses that implement new ideas and technologies could move in. Too few have, and taxpayers are still learning about all the ways they have paid to fill the building over the years.

No new business that was free to make its own choices would move into a downtown Toronto office building, with traffic jams on every side. You might as well ask a business to lift its product in buckets from a well. MARS was built within sight of the Ontario legislature, as a handy reminder of the limits of politicians’ vision.

The urge to complicate comes naturally to politicians. Bains and Duncan must do something harder: simplify. If they can do that, they won’t need much money. If they can’t, more money won’t help.


Why Ottawa should resist the urge to be helpful

  1. “Kirsty Duncan is an air-head with an education.”

    …while, on the other hand, your arrogant (and, ironically, spelling-deficient) hominem attacks contribute to an intelligent discourse on the subject, right?

    • Neurotic……Kirsty duncan makes David Suzuki look good; and given Suzuki has been wrong about everything for the past 40 years says something.

      If you want to know what type of person Duncan is…just remember, she writes on her website, and refers to herself as the winner of a Nobel prize, and she is nothing of the sort. If you will lie about that because you know some idiot will believe it…you would lie about anything.

      the woman is a lightweight, and if in doubt, just watch the next “crazy-eyed” speech she makes and you’ll see it. There is something “not right” about her; Lack of honesty notwithstanding.

      • Google does seem to confirm that Duncan incorrectly claimed to be a “Nobel Peace Prize Laureate”. It appears she is/was also something of a champion of the scientifically unproven liberation therapy.

        Perhaps Marc Garneau would have been a better choice for science minister.

        • Jim.

          If you are going to have a science minister…….at least make sure the selected candidate actually knows something about science. Duncan, is just a useless showboater who is more interested in the publicity than in her facts. She has been wrong on about 100% of what she has discussed. She’s more of a lightweight than Trudeau; but she’s more dangerous, because at least Trudeau knows his limitaions. Duncan blames male scientists for her failures and shortcomings. She’s a typical “progressive”

      • Thanks, I rest my case about your flimsy ad hominem rants. When the fallacy of such “logic” is pointed out, you apparently just double down.

        Far be it from me to suggest that her credentials in public life and academia are considerably more substantial than yours.

        • Neurotic,

          simply watch the woman speak, and then listen to what she is saying. You will see what I mean. And has already been mentioned, the woman is also a liar.

          What kind of person goes around claiming they have a Nobel Prize when in fact they don’t? How deluded do you have to be?

        • Better yet, Neurotic. If you want to see the kind of person Kirsty Duncan is, go here.


          This is a medical site, but please note the part of the article that notes:

          “Kirsty Duncan, a Member of Parliament who has been a vocal pro-CCSVI advocate has asked that Dr. Rubin be removed from the panel because of conflict of interest.”

          She asked for his removal because he disagreed with her about the fraudulent treatment of MS. And the Dr. who disagreed with Ms. duncan….is a vascular surgeon. Who do you think is more credible.

          So Ms. Duncan is the kind of person who demands some type of punishment if you dare to disagree with her. At least in that vein, she is a true Progressive.

          Quick recap:

          1. She lied(s) about being a recipient of the Nobel Prize.
          2. She demands that those who disagree with her be silenced.
          3. She led a failed expedition to unearth an old flu virus, and blamed her failure on sexism; even though her own team blamed her showboating and tempremant for the failure.

          But hey…at least she picked the right team. If the leader of the Party doesn’t have to be qualified to be the Prime Minister, why should the person picked to be in charge of science actually be required to understand the scientific method.

  2. I’m more on the half-full side of R&D policy; in a way, the fact that the STIC reports and Jenkins report were so grim, and that so little was done about them, may be good news for a government which wants to improve things without greatly increasing spending.

    There’s a lot of scope for improving how existing money is being spent; you’ve already mentioned removing the targeting of existing research spending under the funding councils, which would greatly buoy the spirits of most of Canadian academic science for no additional money. Redirecting CFREF funds back into a general pool would also help, at the expense of riling the U15 administrations.

    On the Ministry of Innovation side, it’s been clear for some time now, and documented in those reports, that the SR&ED tax credit is an incredibly expensive, inefficient, and unsuccessful way to fund private-sector R&D. Simply phasing those out in favour of frequent competitive grants and existing voucher programs would redirect existing money to much more productive ends, and bring us more in line with more-successful programs in peer countries.

    • “Simply phasing those out in favour of frequent competitive grants and existing voucher programs would redirect existing money to much more productive ends”

      I can see the Liberals getting onside with a change that allows them to decide which corporations to give government grants to.

      • I share your cynicism. However, as best as I can determine, the current SR&ED tax credit is basically giving companies money to do what they would have done anyway. I.e., it’s rewarding companies for product development which has little associated research. I can’t quantify this, so don’t ask.

        Not sure what would be a better way to do this, but I think that unless a totally arm’s length agency were doling out the funds, political interference and manipulation would be the order of the day.

        • In the case of the existing voucher programs, the money actually goes to existing researchers (often but not always academics) to perform the research; and the amount of money isn’t some huge windfall by private-sector standards (in fact, such programs often requires the company to put up some fraction of the cash themselves unless you’re dealing with some very preliminary “proof of concept” project, where the amount of money is commonly <$75k). For grants, competitive grants can be handled independently or even by the existing councils.

          Either way, other countries do these things routinely, and they're getting better outcomes than Canada; let's just do what they do.

  3. “Every real scientist she has worked with has nothing but contempt for her show-boating.”

    ” Suzuki has been wrong about everything for the past 40 years says something. ”

    It’s fascinating to ponder why you would fabricate such transparent self-defeating nonsense. Particularly when there are genuine criticisms of Duncan and Suzuki to be made, why set fire to yourself again and again?
    There’s got to be some pathology at work which goes well beyond simple stupidity.

    • Tresus,

      the pathology is called, “stating the truth”

      No wonder you don’t understand it.

      If you had EVER bothered to do your own research, or even bother to check out the links provided (yes, I know it seems like work to some folks..but trust me, it helps) you may be able to avoid looking like a duffus in the future. (Though I’m sure in the real world, most of the people you have to deal with already know this)

      Suzuki stopped being a real scientist in 1963. Since then, he’s just been a talking head on the CBC. You know…sort of like an aging tennis player who can’t cut the mustard anymore, but still wants to be involved in the game.

      Duncan: you shouldn’t need a link for this, but try them anyway. One simply has to watch this nutcase try to form a coherent sentence to see that there is something seriously wrong with her.

  4. The main problem is in R&D paid by private corporations, not research financed by the various research granting agencies. This is also a particularly Canadian problem; several other countries have private companies that are much more willing to invest their own money in their own R&D efforts. One way that the previous gouvernment tried to improve this is to provide public funds to R&D projects of interest to private corporations on the condition that these companies contribute some small proportion of the funds. I think that it is still too early to know if this method is successful or not, and I would continue it longer before making a decision. However, another method that I think is even better it to tie corporate tax rates to things like employment levels and private investment in R&D. If a company actually creates more jobs then it gets a tax break otherwise it has to pay more taxes. If a company actually invests some of its own money in R&D then it gets a tax break otherwis it has to pay more taxes. In other words, tie tax rates to actual performance in these areas. I would set a rather high corporate tax rate (much higher than is actually the case) and then allow companies to reduce this rate based on actual performance rather than simply promises.

  5. Trudeau and his media flackies failed miserably on the promise of 25000 government refugees.

    2600 government sponsored refugees by Jan 1. 11% percent of the target was the media and Trudeau assured us during the election campaign would be trivial to achieve, and that Stephen Harper was being an evil meanie for promising less, and Tom Mulcair was being a meanie for promising less.

    11%, I think qualifies as a big fat F for failure.

    The jets are still dropping bombs. I think that counts as an F also.

    The $10 billion dollar deficit promises is kaput…not they are just not going to try to not increase debt to GDP. I figure they fail at that by year 2.

    I also can’t wait to see Justin Trudeau strong arm the Pope into apologizing.

    The legalization of pot is doomed. The media seemed to have forgotten Canada’s treaty obligations many committed to by previous Liberal governments, and didn’t tell Canadians about them during the election campaign.

    The United States is not going to be particularly happy with Trudeau dumping the anti-China TPP to try making a free trade deal with China. The Obama/Clinton US “Asian twist” in foreign policy was all about isolating China.

  6. But Paul what do the other PM® (Puppet Masters) Katie and Jerry think.??

  7. It seems the press as much as politicians misunderstand what modern innovation looks like – apparently they’re still focused on the notion of a group of individuals occupying office space and/or that creating physical plant will naturally drive innovation. It seems that concepts like open sourcing or working in the cloud are alien to them. A significant problem is that governments attempt to identify large enterprise with a plan to innovate when large businesses tend to be averse to true innovation and tend more to programs which are tend mostly to development rather than research; also, many large enterprises in Canada are branch plants which mainly import technology and enterprises with a licensee model where they mainly purchase the technology they need. It’s more likely that true innovation will come from seat-of-the-pants startups which have little time to devote to bureaucratic process and skunk works which can seldom engage in formal way within their host organization. The majority of politicians, press and the general public seem to assume that innovation is a scientific enterprise when statistically 95% is not and the conversion from science to economic activity is tortuous and uncertain, also ignoring that some of the most profitable innovation is in production methods, application, finance and marketing.

  8. Mechanisms like SRED are neither all-powerful nor futile. Providing some tax relief to enterprises for doing what they might want to do anyway is arguably a weak incentive; on the positive side, it only rewards enterprises that are willing to have some skin in the game as compared to more directed government subsidization which requires government to pick ‘winners’ and frequently ends in doctrinaire and/or pork-barrel R&D funding. The presumptive purpose of SRED is to underwrite risk; the notion that this is ‘too expensive’ is unsupported since it is not based on comparison to alternatives and relatively speaking it comes in small proportion as compared to government funding of risk in oil and gas exploration, for instance.
    A more general problem with funding of R&D outside of the government is a common notion of R&D as a sort of sausage machine where turning the crank inevitably results in a predictable result. In actual fact, the more innovative an R&D program is, the greater the uncertainty of cost, effort and success. It has ever been a political game and a popular theme in the press to carp at the uncertainties of real R&D projects. The meme ‘no pain, no gain’ goes ignored; worse, some percentage of the time, there is only pain – you can’t know what’s over the hill until you go there.

  9. Oh, the mantra of “innovation”. Innovation is only of value when it results in an improvement of service/results to the customer, with no increase in costs to the provider, or, when it provides an incentive for the customer to pay enough more for a product/service to cover the cost of the innovation and then some.
    Because we know that there isn’t a government in Canada that has ever demonstrated an ability to use innovation in the above fashion, we know then that innovation does not exist within the public sector, or is at best a unicorn in that sector.
    The only real innovation that any government can engage in is in the arena of cost cutting. There are more mating pairs of Bigfoot in Pictou County than there are intelligent Canadians who are unaware that virtually all levels of government are bloated and over paid. Real innovation would be a government willing to take on the vested interests within in order to trim the payrolls and ease the burden on taxpayers.